Reed Hopkins shoved away from his desk. It was impossible to write about blood and fear, monsters and mayhem, with the scents of cinnamon and baking bread in the air.
There was also the woman.
He couldn’t smell her, but of course she was awake as well, in the bungalow just on the other side of the nine-foot, ivy-covered fence directly behind the separate structure that functioned as his office. The two-room stucco building included a full bath and a kitchenette, but he only used it during his writing hours: from nine at night until four in the morning.
It used to be a peaceful, productive sanctuary until a couple of months before. Then the guest house that was part of the estate on the other side of his property line had become occupied and she had begun her dabbling in the dark arts—er, baking in the very early morning hours. Her insomnia was wreaking havoc with his latest deadline.
His mouth watered at the smell of yeast and spicy sweetness and he jumped to his feet. Maybe a view of a crescent moon and creeping vines would put him back in a horror frame of mind.
But when he stepped onto the back porch, he knew he wasn’t alone out in the fresh air. Oh, they were still separated, but she was out there too. He could sense her presence as surely as Jesse, the fourteen-year-old hero in his series of books, The School, could sense the evil goings-on at his cold and militaristic educational institution.
Every night Reed told himself he was going to keep his ass planted in his desk chair. Every night, he failed in that promise.
It could all be blamed on his imagination.
Leaning against one of the posts that held up the overhang, he stared at the star-strewn sky. A lot of the time it would be overcast in the early morning hours, the fog rolling in from the Pacific to this Southern California enclave, but it was October, time of heated days and clear nights. This was the month when the Santa Ana winds blowing off the desert could whip up raging fires from the smallest spark.
A dangerous season.
A creak came from the other side of the dense foliage covering the grape-stake fence rails. He fancied it came from an aluminum, turquoise-colored mid-century modern patio chair. He had no way of knowing, of course, as he’d never had reason to visit the place behind his—for all he knew the estate was styled like the Taj Mahal. But in his mind’s eye he saw her settling onto that metal seat, her ample curves covered in an apron. There was a streak of flour on her cheek, he decided.
He strained his ears for further sounds. Surely she knit.
“How are you tonight?” she called in her quiet voice. It wasn’t clear whether she was a contralto or if it just sounded that way when she spoke in hushed tones.
“I’m good.” Sometime ago he’d imagined the one she didn’t want to awaken. Her husband would be Len, a solid sort who slept the sleep of the righteous. Just as Reed was hitting the sack, Len would be off to his day job of delivering clean linens to local restaurants. Napkins, tablecloths, and those starched jackets that chefs wore.
During the day, Len’s wife would bustle around the guest house, tidying the rooms. She’d told him the owners of the main house were on an extended vacation and she was keeping an eye on the place.
The source of her insomnia remained a mystery.
“What’s the latest on your shows?” he asked now.
“You wouldn’t believe it. Just so happens that in both episodes I watched today the characters were on road trips. I kept expecting the motorcycle club to meet up with the minivan.”
He bit back a grin, thinking of that himself. She was binge-watching a couple of popular TV series, one about an outlaw biker gang and the other centered on a large, extended family, both set in Northern California. “It could be quite a picnic,” he said.
The silence that fell between them next wasn’t unusual. They didn’t talk about anything personal—not even their names. He’d never intended to speak to her at all, but then she’d left tightly wrapped baked goods at his front gate. No note or anything, but who else would drop off food that he’d smelled in the oven hours before?
So one dark-before-dawn he’d ventured to his porch, heard her rustling on the other side of the fence, and thanked her for the cookies. At first, he’d resented her for that. Why the hell should he be forced to engage with a stranger? But then…then something changed.
He became oddly, yet wildly curious about her.
Being a very private man himself, he didn’t feel it was his place to pry, however. Instead, he allowed himself this little game. Every night he’d wander out to set up an opportunity for her to drop a nugget or two about her life.
More pieces to the picture he was concocting of her being some cross between Betty Crocker and Mrs. Claus.
It was a writer-thing. He figured as soon as he had his mental portrait of her completely filled-in, he could return to the sinister and shadowy world of his stories and neither her sleeplessness nor her presence would bother him anymore.
“Cold slaw,” she suddenly said. “Heard it just today.”
“I like it.” Once they’d talked about “eggcorns,” the use of a word or phrase that sounds similar to another word or phrase and worked as well for it as the original. “Youthemism.”
He could almost hear her cocking her—never glimpsed—head.
“Youthemism,” he repeated. “Like when the gardener told us kids our pet rabbit ‘went to the ranch’ instead of confessing he’d accidentally run it over.”
There was a moment of stunned silence, long enough for him to replay his words in his head. Everyone knew he had a macabre turn of mind. “Sorry,” he muttered. Way to turn the woman off—not that he wanted to turn her on, of course. “That was a gruesome example.”
“True,” she said. “But worse, you’ve been saving that. Youthemism.”
His lips twitched, his mood lifting. “Caught me.” He was still nearly smiling when she spoke again.
“Do you come from a large family? You said ‘us kids.’”
He stilled. “Um, well…” He raked his fingers through his straight hair. On the one hand, it was a good question because there was a reciprocity to it—she’d likely offer him some information about herself in return. On the other hand, his domestic situation was decidedly…fucked-up came to mind. “I have two brothers, Beck and Walsh,” he said. For all he knew there were half-siblings out there because his father, the drummer for the Velvet Lemons, the most famous rock ’n’ roll band in the world, had never been one to keep his dick in his pants.
“I sort of have those, too.” He stared up at the sky. A year ago, he would have overlooked mentioning them, but the nine collective children of the band had been regularly socializing again after years of near-complete separation. “Cilla and Cami. We were raised together as well as with Ren, Payne, Bing, and Brody.”
He gave her a moment to absorb the strangeness of that. When she remained quiet, he allowed himself a question. “How about you? Siblings?”
“None of those for me,” she said, sadness in her voice. “No parents, either. At least not anymore.”
Something twisted in his chest and he told himself to ignore his reaction to that forlorn note. She wasn’t alone—there was Len! Len, who probably had a snoring problem that kept her awake at night, but no other sins to speak of.
He cleared his throat. “I should—”
“What did you think of the carrot muffins?” she asked, a faux-brightness to her voice.
He could tell she was embarrassed by what she’d divulged about herself. “They were very good. Great, actually.” Maybe she couldn’t sleep because she worried so much about her husband, whose heart condition and middle-aged weight gain meant she had to give away every delicious thing that came out of her ovens. “Were they made from a personal recipe?”
“A friend of mine gave me a cookbook to fatten me up,” she said, “when I started losing weight on the divorce diet.”
Losing weight? He wanted her pleasingly plump, like Mrs. Santa, with silver hair and apple-red cheeks. How else would she fill out that ruffled apron—
“Wait.” What? Divorce diet? “Len left you?” he asked, incredulous.
Oh, hell. His writer brain was tripping him up again. Len was his made-up man for her, the chubby, aging baker next-door. “Never mind, never mind. You’re divorced?”
“Mmm.” Another long beat of silence. “For a while now.”
He rubbed a hand over his mouth. Shifted his feet. Ordered himself to go back to his desk. He’d left Jesse walking down a gloomy hallway, following a malevolent shadow. But how could he concoct a tale of dread and darkness when his image of the woman over the fence had just been shattered like a mirror? Everyone knew that was bad luck.
It was time to get the real picture, stat. Then he could return to his story world, never to be bothered by the mystery of her again, because she would no longer be a mystery.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
He imagined her saying it, and realized the last syllable would leave her lips in the shape of an open-mouthed kiss. Pervert, he scolded himself. You shouldn’t be thinking of Betty Crocker and French kisses in the same breath. Learning she collected Social Security should shut that down. He cleared his throat. “How old are you, Cleo?”
“Hmm?” She sounded distracted, like maybe she was mentally counting the doilies in her living room. “Oh, I’m twenty-eight.”
Reed froze. Twenty-eight. Twenty-eight-year-old, my-name’s-like-a-carnal-kiss Cleo was a stone’s throw from him. A distracting distance for any single man who thought about sex thirty-seven times a day and every seven seconds when the writing wasn’t going well. Shit.
She wasn’t his type, he decided on an instant. Thinking back, it was unclear he had a type, but surely she wasn’t it. Certainly not. “What do you…what do you look like?” he ventured asking.
“Me?” Her chair squeaked as if she was preparing to get up.
He needed to know before she went back into her bungalow. “Yeah. You know,” he said, keeping his voice casual. “Hair. Eye color. That sort of thing.”
Hell. He loved blondes.
Maybe he made a noise, because there was a sudden alertness from the other side of the fence. But brown eyes were his favorite. He pictured them now, a warm, beautiful shade. “And the rest?” That came out less than casual, he knew it right off. Instead, it sounded strangled, just like he felt when thinking about the distracting blonde, brown-eyed, single woman just a few steps away from his sanctuary.
“Oh. Well.” There was a beat of silence and then she laughed a little. Breathily. “I’m…tallish…and you can see a lot of my long, long legs because I’m wearing very, very short-short shorts. You know, the tight kind? My top is tight too, real clingy over my big, double, um, D’s.”
Double D’s? His eyes popped open and then they cinched low as he caught her snickers from the other side of the fence. “Very funny,” he groused.
“G’night, neighbor,” she said, still laughing. “Until next time.”
There wasn’t going to be a next time, Reed thought. And not because of her gotcha self-description. But because of that contralto. Cold slaw. Biker gang binge-watching.
There was too much to like and all of it was too diverting.
Staring up at the moon, he came to an unpleasant decision. No more middle-of-the-night-writing. No more crawling into his work-coffin at 9 p.m. and sitting at his desk until dawn was still just a promise. To avoid her—Cleo—he was going to have to give up his vampire hours.
Reed tossed a cold beer at Payne Colson and settled on the lounge chair adjacent to his. Though they were hanging in the sunny front yard of his corner lot, there was plenty of privacy, as a thick, eight-foot hedge separated the space from the sidewalk. Sipping at his tall glass of tomato juice, Reed watched the other man settle more deeply into the cushions, one arm beneath his head.
“Don’t go to sleep on me,” he said. “I have to get back to work.”
Payne, whose father, String Bean Colson, was the guitarist of the Velvet Lemons, balanced the beer bottle on his chest. With a finger, he tilted up is Wayfarers to look at Reed. “It’s three in the afternoon. You don’t work during the day.”
“I do now.”
He shrugged. “You know. Trying to be more…normal.”
Payne snorted. “Good luck with that.”
Reed narrowed his eyes. “Thank you so fucking much.”
“I’m just being honest. First off, you’re one of the Rock Royalty.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Reed dismissed that with a wave of his hand, because it was years since Rolling Stone magazine had coined that term for the nine children of the Velvet Lemons in a comprehensive article on the band and the Laurel Canyon compound where they’d grown up. It was true, though, that being raised in decadent neglect by their fathers—their most stable mother figure an infamous groupie by the name of Guinevere Moon—had certainly given them unique and largely unwholesome beginnings.
“Then there’s this place you call home.”
Reed glanced around. “What’s wrong with it?” The house was Surburbia-on-Steroids. Not a majestic McMansion, but one of a development of sprawling ranches with lots of trees and green spaces. His house was six bedrooms, five bathrooms, and out back, along with his office, was a pool and tennis court to which he’d added a couple of hoops for round ball. “They could film a feel-good family sitcom right here.”
“Yeah, which makes it even creepier that the author of the world’s scariest stories for kids lives in it…unless that’s the whole point?”
Payne had always been smarter than his beach boy good looks first let on. Reed figured living here put him in a better frame of mind from which to write his books. After all, his hero, Jesse, had been plucked from just such conventional environs before being put down in the chilling world of The School.
“Enough about me,” Reed said. “How’s my car?”
Payne grinned. “Purring like a kitten. Now.”
Reed forced himself not to wince. The other man owned several auto salvage yards. He raced cars. Working on automobiles was his passion. When Reed’s BMW needed some TLC, he always handed the keys to Payne. But as a connoisseur of everything beautiful, he loved to push the limits of anything lovely he got between his bare hands. “How fast did you get her to?”
“It’s better I don’t tell you.”
Payne laughed. “It wasn’t so bad. Cilla was in the car with me, so I kept it just this side of top-cruising speed.”
“What did Cilla get you to agree to?” The youngest of the Velvet Lemons kids, Cilla Maddox was now engaged to Ren Colson, Payne’s older brother. Cilla and Ren’s romance had been the catalyst for the Rock Royalty to begin meeting up again after years of near-estrangement. Though the rest had been ambivalent about reuniting at first, Cilla’s enthusiasm and energy had been impossible to resist.
Ren had fallen like a redwood at her feet, shaking up their entire world.
“Oh, the usual stuff,” Payne said now. “I’m supposed to pump Cami for the latest about that mystery boyfriend we believe she has. Beck’s continued disappearance is worrying her—”
“Walsh and I keep telling Cilla he’s fine…just being Beck.” An adventure writer, the oldest Hopkins brother had been out of touch for several months. “He’s on a remote section of the Nile River, for God’s sake. There are water snakes, not Wi-Fi.”
“There’s also the small matter of your scruffy hair and dreary wardrobe.”
Running his hands through his over-long locks, Reed glanced down at clothing. Black jeans. A light gray T-shirt that someone handed him at Comic-Con. “Cilla’s complaining about my looks?”
“No.” Payne grinned. “That’s just me, poking at you.”
Reed scowled. “Like you’re a fashion-plate.” He indicated the other man’s battered denim pants, white T-shirt, and black high-top sneakers. “The ghost of James Dean called and wants his gear back.”
“Gets me laid,” Payne said, with unconcern. “But I worry about you, Reed. Working when everyone but the supernatural are sleeping off a vigorous bout of sex.”
For a second, Reed’s mind flashed back to his rear neighbor. Blonde, brown eyes, big chest. But that was all bullshit…and a complication he didn’t need anyway. “I told you I’m changing that…but anyway, I have a deadline coming up.”
“Yeah, but you’re not dead.”
Reed sighed. Experience with women had been easy to come by in his adolescent years at the Velvet Lemons compound. The male members of the Rock Royalty had been baptized in the swimming pool and the hot tub with the help of lingerie models, porn stars, and up-and-coming actresses. While he’d been aware of the tawdriness—he’d also been a teen. In his twenties, after moving out, female companionship hadn’t been any harder to secure when he was paying for the drinks and drove a decent ride.
He also thought, thanks to those early mentors, that by then he’d been pretty darn good with a woman’s body. What a twenty-something might hesitate to request of a man of her own age, a beautiful female felt free to demand of the sixteen-year-old she was diddling in his dad’s pool.
Yeah, tawdry. But educational.
Now that he’d hit thirty, though, he hesitated over casual hook-ups. People could get hurt. He didn’t want some woman to land in his bed and expect he could offer more than a guy who could hold off her orgasms until she was ready to scream. Despite the fact that Ren and Cilla, as well as another member of the Rock Royalty, Cilla’s brother Bing Maddox, had decided their laissez-faire—at best—and licentious—at worst—childhoods didn’t preclude them from fulfilling pair-bonding, Reed remained unconvinced.
In regards to himself, he knew there was an entire other layer of dark stuff that stained his soul.
“Reed?” Payne prodded. “Look, I know this pair of twins…”
Reed shook his head. “It’s always a pair of twins with you.”
“Not true.” Payne’s mouth widened in a grin, his teeth wolf-white against the golden whiskers of his short beard. “Remember the Berry triplets? We could give them a call.”
Suppressing a shudder, he tried not to think of their vice-like thighs and unceasing prattle about their favorite reality TV shows. They wouldn’t know an eggcorn if one bit them on their buns of steel. “A mature recluse like me can’t keep up with the Berry triplets.”
“That’s what I’m telling you, Reed. You’re getting old and odd.”
“I ran into Lily the other day.”
Payne’s smile died as if it he’d been shot with a cyanide-soaked arrow and Reed instantly regretted his remark. “Old and odd” might have stung, but that pain was clearly nothing compared to what Payne felt about the girl who’d gotten away. They’d all gone to high school together and Reed didn’t know what had broken up the two, but Payne still carried some kind of residual wound, obviously.
“I’m going to dump this beer in the house,” Payne said, rising so abruptly from his chair that it rocked on the grass.
Watching him go, Reed addressed his back, trying to make up for being an asshole. “Maybe you’re right. I need to go out if I want to get my normal on. Next week?”
The other man didn’t answer.
Reed took another swallow of his juice, then contemplated the half-glass of red liquid as he suppressed a yawn. It looked more alive than he did. This change in schedule was killing him, though he’d not been bothered by neighbor Cleo during his new hours. He was working mostly in his house, but when he went to his office he wore headphones now and burned this weird-scented candle that one of his readers had sent him.
It was black, which went with his mood.
Lulled by the warm sun filtering through the large sycamore tree, he closed his eyes. His mind returned to Jesse, who had been left in the play yard of the military school, during the forty minutes of “free” exercise the students were allowed a day. In actuality, that period allowed for the kind of petty bullying that occurred in any gathering of children, but that had more ominous overtones at The School.
The young male voices that he heard could have come from that world. “Do you have them?” one boy asked.
A zipping sound, like a backpack was being opened. A second voice. “It was gross, but I went through the garbage and found every slimy apple core and old banana peel I could. The lunch duty even gave me a grocery bag when I told her I was bringing them home for the compost pile.”
“Good. Dump ’em here and when they near the corner we’ll pelt ’em.”
“What if they throw them back?”
“Those two babies? Bet they throw like pussies. They’ll never hit us.”
Reed’s eyes opened. That wasn’t his imagination. There was a pair of kids on the sidewalk just on the other side of his hedge.
“Yeah. Bet they go home crying to their mommy.”
“Bet that really weird one, Obie, pees his pants.”
Their laughter held the universal edge of bullies everywhere. Pussies. Mommy. Pees his pants. Reed’s teeth gritted and he mentally dug in his heels so he wouldn’t be sucked into memories of Oceanview Army-Navy, that den of vipers where he’d endured a year of his life…and that had given him a lifetime of nightmares.
“Do you see them? Keep your eyes open.”
Reed debated what he should do. He remembered trying to tell his grandfather about the hazing and worse that was happening at Oceanview during the first Parents’ Weekend. Of course his father had been on tour—and would have given a shit anyway—but retired navy captain Vernon Martin had been there, with his military bearing and his unsympathetic ear. Boys will be boys. It bonds you together. A little pain, a little humiliation never hurt anybody.
Reed knew that was fucking wrong, but he also didn’t know shit about this neighborhood’s childhood politics—he was usually sleeping when the kids were about. Maybe today it was a food fight. Tomorrow, a gleeful, two-way water-balloon battle, fast friends forever.
Even the Rock Royalty, with their unorthodox upbringings that hadn’t fostered closeness, were now becoming as thick as thieves.
The conspirators were whispering to each other, their words too low for him to catch, their sniggers revealing the plan was still on. Wavering about what—if any—action to take, Reed swung his feet to the ground. Maybe if he showed up on the sidewalk they’d move along and take their battle someplace else.
But for all he knew, the kids they were hoping to ambush deserved their comeuppance. He couldn’t discern the real villains of the piece since he hadn’t written it himself, after all.
“Here they come!” The words slithered through the hedge. “Go for Obie first!”
“Yeah, he’ll cry for sure.”
Reed stood, still holding his glass of juice. Maybe he could peer through the shrubbery leaves and get the lay of the land. But the greenery was too dense. In the distance, he heard new voices. A little kid, chattering loudly about the class hamster as he passed the long front line of Reed’s property. Around the corner were the boys in wait. “He stuffs his cheeks, Eli! He shoves the Cheerios inside!”
“I’ve seen a hamster,” Eli said, in a long-suffering tone.
“Do you think Mom will let us get a hamster? Roy, he’s this boy in my class, he has a pet rat and a pet spider.”
“Get real,” Eli said.
Reed found himself grinning at the world weary voice of experience. “Mom would never let us have a rodent or an insect.”
“A spider is not an insect,” Obie said, superior. “It’s an arachnid.”
“Fine, Mr. Know Everything. You’re not getting one of those either.”
“I don’t know why—” His sentence cut off with a squeal. “Eww!”
What followed was the sound of a flurry of projectiles hitting bodies, sidewalk, street.
“Knock it off,” Eli yelled. “You leave my brother alone.”
“They hit you, too, Eli,” his brother pointed out. “You have a smear of apple on your face.”
“Obie Dopie,” one of the first voices taunted. “I got a banana peel for the little monkey.”
“Run, Opie,” Eli said, his tone harsh.
“But I have to go past them to get home.” The niggle of fear in the child’s voice galvanized Reed. He knew that sound. Had heard it in muffled tears against a pillow at Oceanview. Nearly every night in his ugly dreams.
Rushing forward, toward the front gate, he forgot about his tomato juice. The stuff splashed all over his hand and arm and he dropped the glass to the lawn then wiped the red liquid against the front of his chest.
The one-sided fight was still going on as he thrust open the sturdy gate. The hinges shrieked like a carnivorous bat on the hunt. In his hurry, he almost tripped over his own feet and to regain his balance, he lurched onto the sidewalk, taking in the situation at a glance. On his left, the throwers, blocking the corner turn. To his right, Eli and Obie, red-faced and tense, smeared and stained with lunch garbage.
The littlest boy’s big blue eyes pierced Reed to the bone. “What’s going on?” he bellowed, turning to bear down on the little shits with the fruit with a long stride and a burning gaze. The duo gaped at him for one frozen second, then on matching screams of pure terror, took off down the street.
Eli, with Obie in hand, was also on the run. He made a silent, wide skirt around Reed and towed his brother around the corner as fast as their kid-legs could carry them.
A hard palm clapped him on the shoulder. “So this is how you’re entertaining yourself these days? Scaring the bejesus out of small children?”
Reed looked over at Payne, then followed the other man’s gaze. The tomato juice he’d wiped on his shirt looked for all the world like spilled blood. He thought of his too-long hair, the way he’d staggered onto the sidewalk, the raw note in his voice as he’d yelled.
“Shit,” he said.
Payne gave him another of his it’s-a-beautiful-day-at-the-beach smiles. “How’s that normal working out for ya?”